When I was a child I wished often I had been born into a First Nations family. Although I was born in Canada, mine was an immigrant family and the only way I could imagine that I would genuinely belong in Canada was if I was born Aboriginal. One’s sense of time and history is different when one is a child and I remember standing in our backyard imagining the people who had given up this land so that we could live there. I assumed the people were similar to our family with parents and a child my age. I imagined meeting the family, inviting them to our house, which in my childhood naiveté I assumed had once been theirs and I wondered what it felt like for them to see others in their home.
And I still wonder, because although my childhood image of how our house came to be was not accurate, it remains true that the land our house was on was not first ours. It once belonged to another people. Or more accurately, it was once honoured and cared for by another people.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently produced its report. It accuses Canada of cultural genocide with respect to its residential schools and it throws the gauntlet down: Canada must work toward justice with respect to the impact of these schools. While the report itself includes many suggestions in this regard, a larger question also presents itself that I find provocative: How should non-Aboriginal Canadians regard their responsibility with respect to the challenge posed by the Commission? After all, most non-Aboriginal living Canadians were not involved in residential schools, whether because of their age or social location or because their families came to Canada too recently. How does one come to terms with one’s nation’s history when one’s connection to that history is at best, ambiguous?
The tendency toward individualism in Canada does not help us here. Individualism tells us that we are only responsible for our own actions. This is an important and highly cherished value. The Canadian justice system, after all, would not convict a grandchild of a crime committed by his/her grandparent. And yet… Individualism alone results in the narcissistic death of a country. If we respond only as individualists, we will lose our soul. When I am only responsible for myself, it does not matter that others are dying around me. Nor must I see or acknowledge the hidden and not-so-hidden ways in which I benefit from the social construction of the world in which I live.
But despite our individualistic tendencies, we are not as individual as we might wish to be. As a Canadian, I have profited from the social construction of our country that benefits some and disenfranchises others. More importantly, I accept that none of us is an island to ourselves; we are more connected than we realise. As a person of faith I believe that all of us exist together in the holy mystery we call God. We belong to each other. Or in the words of the apostle Paul: We are shackled to one another. Because of this, I can accept responsibility not only for the fallout of the residential schools. I can accept responsibility for brokenness and destruction and genocide wherever it is found. And I can commit myself to work toward justice and hope and reconciliation wherever it is needed. As a Canadian, I make this commitment especially with respect to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.